The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.
The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.
More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.
First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.
As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication.Continue reading →
The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many. The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker. The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.
In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station. In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.
The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers. These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:
Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)
Each station is independent and generic. Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas. These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.
In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone. It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.
There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system. The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).
The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship. These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.
This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center. For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.
First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:
Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.
The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers. This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.
The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship. Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.
A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member. A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone. The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.
The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals. As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.
Brutally efficient hardware
The phone system succeeds in its hardware. Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember. When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).
It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive. When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel. The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates. This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.
With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.
For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently. There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.
Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line. Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.
After the Galactica takes a nuclear missile hit to its port launch bay, part of the CIC goes into Damage Control mode. Chief Tyrol and another officer take up a position next to a large board with a top-down schematic of the Galactica. The board has various lights in major sections of the ship representing various air-tight modules in the ship.
After the nuclear hit, the port launch bay is venting to space, bulkheads are collapsing in due to the damage, and there are uncontrolled fires. In those blocks, the lights blink red.
Colonel Tigh orders the red sections sealed off and vented to space. When Tigh turns his special damage control key in the “Master Vent” control, the lights disappear until the areas are sealed off again. When the fires go out and the master vents are closed, the lights return to a green state.
On the board then, the lights have three states:
Green: air-tight, healthy
Blinking Red: Fire
Off: Intentional Venting
There does not appear to be any indications of the following states:
Damage Control Teams in the area
Open to space/not air-tight
We also do not see how sections are chosen to be vented.
Why it works
The most effective pieces here are the red lights and the “vent” key. Chief Tyrol has a phone to talk to local officers managing the direct crisis, and can keep a basic overview of the problems on the ship (with fire being the most dangerous) with the light board. The “vent” key is likewise straightforward, and has a very clear “I’m about to do something dangerous” interaction.
What is confusing are the following items:
How does Chief Tyrol determine which phone/which officer he’s calling?
Who is the highest ranking officer in the area?
How does the crew determine which sections they’re going to vent?
How do they view more complex statuses besides “this section is on fire”?
As with other systems on the Galactica, the board could be improved with the use of more integrated systems like automatic sensors, display screens to cycle through local cameras, and tracking systems for damage control crew. Also as with other systems on the Galactica, these were deliberate omissions to prevent the Cylons from being able to control the Galactica.
One benefit of the simplified system is that it keeps Chief Tyrol thinking of the high-level problem instead of trying to micromanage his local damage control teams. With proper training, local teams with effective leadership and independent initiative are more effective than a large micro-managed organization. Chief Tyrol can focus on the goals he needs his teams to accomplish:
Putting out fires
Evacuating local crew
Protecting the ship from secondary explosions
…and allow his local teams to focus on the tactics of each major goal.
What it’s missing
A glaring omission here is the lack of further statuses. In the middle of a crisis, Chief Tyrol could easily lose track of individual teams on his ship. He knows the crews that are in the Port Hangar Bay, but we never hear about the other damage control teams and where they are. Small reminders or other status indicators would keep the Chief from needing to remember everything that was happening across the ship. Even a box of easily-grabbed sticky notes or a grease-pen board would help here and be very low-tech.
Possible indicators include:
Secondary lights in each section when a damage control crew was in the area
A third color indicator (less optimal, but would take up less space on the board)
A secondary board with local reports of damage crew location and progress
Low oxygen states
High oxygen states (higher fire risk)
It is also possible that Colonel Tigh would have taken the local crews into consideration when making his decision if he could have seen where they were for himself on the board, instead of simply hearing Chief Tyrol’s protests about their existence. Reducing feedback loops can make decision making less error prone and faster, but can admittedly introduce single points of failure.
Colonel Tigh and Chief Tyrol are able to get control of the situation with the tools at hand, but minor upgrades could have lessened the stress of the situation and allowed both of them to think clearer before jumping to decisions. Better systems would have given them all the information they needed, but the Galactica’s purpose limited them for the benefit of the entire ship.
The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.
Sitterson and Hadley pass security.
Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.
Hadley boots up the control room screens.
The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.
The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.
In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?
The nest empties.
To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.
Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.
The stage managers monitor the victims.
There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.
The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”
For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.
Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.
The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.
One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.
Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.
Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.